A new strategy for rural broadband

Private providers failed to serve rural Vermont. Our bill provides incentives for communities to create internet infrastructure.

DOVER — The House Energy and Technology Committee deals with matters relating to energy (including the regulation of power generation, transmission facilities, energy efficiency, natural gas facilities, and siting of energy facilities), utilities (including rates and quality of service), telecommunications (including siting of telecommunications facilities, the buildout of cellular and broadband services, and rates and quality of service), and the state's information technology systems. Tim Briglin of Thetford was named chair of the committee, and I am serving as vice chair.

We passed several bills out of our committee this year - most notably, an omnibus telecommunications bill that we worked on for most of the first half of the session.

Rural Vermont has been waiting a long time for broadband. Private providers have failed to serve the least-profitable parts of Vermont and, as a state, we do not have the more than $600 million needed to develop a public fiber network.

If signed into law, the bill, “An act relating to broadband deployment throughout Vermont,” will help communities create broadband solutions in areas of the state that are underserved.

It encourages communities to form multi-town Communications Union Districts and apply for state planning funds to create a fundable plan for the buildout and operation of symmetrical broadband service in their region.

Financial tools to implement those plans are part of the bill. The governor included broadband priorities in his budget, most notably a new Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) lending program and $1 million in one-time funds that were incorporated into the bill.

The bill provides:

• Technical assistance and financing tools for Communication Union Districts and municipalities.

• A new position - rural broadband technical assistant specialist - in the Department of Public Service.

• A new Broadband Innovation Grant Program to provide $700,000 in grants (maximum of $60,000) for Communications Union Districts and communities to conduct feasibility studies on how to build and finance broadband to Vermont's unserved and underserved areas.

• A look to the future for communications infrastructure in Vermont.

• A redefinition of “high-speed broadband” as providing internet connectivity with speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This is the federal definition of broadband. The technology currently capable of this speed is cable and fiber and some fixed wireless connections.

• Funding for a $50,000 feasibility study to consider how electric utility infrastructure might be used to extend broadband to the last mile.

• Establishment of a group to consider future funding and support of Public, Educational, and Government Access (PEG) channels.

• A one-time infusion of $205,000 to the Connectivity Initiative to be awarded as match grants to internet service providers to bring broadband to underserved and unserved areas of Vermont.

• Increase of the Vermont Universal Service Fee by 0.04 percent - roughly 40 cents on a consumer's $100 phone bill - to add $1 million annually to the Connectivity Initiative.

• The VEDA Broadband Expansion Loan Program of $10.8 million in loans, requiring a municipal 10 percent match, to build fiber.

• A request to the governor's office, treasurer's office, and Vermont Municipal Bond Bank to provide a recommendation in December on the advisability of municipalities issuing general obligation bonds to finance buildout in underserved and unserved areas.

• Increase of accountability of hosts, users, and regulators of our communications networks.

• “One-touch make ready” policies for pole attachments. These policies are expected to streamline the deployment of broadband.

• Refinement of the time frames for the statewide Telecommunications Plan, which is updated every three years and requires reporting on E911 services that don't work without power.

• Authorization and funding for municipalities' access and deployment of 2G microcell technology already owned by the state. These are the former CoverageCo radios.

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Our committee also passed out:

Miscellaneous energy subjects: Cleanup of Department of Public Service legislation.

Agency of Digital Services: Cleans up 2017 law regarding the agency.

Municipal utility capital investment: Allows for a town Selectboard or commission to authorize certain levels of capital expenditures for municipal utilities. The bill grandfathers net metering for schools that were eligible prior to Act 46 and establishes a timeline for the Public Utility Commission's approval of uncontested net-metering systems.

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